Why it’s important to have a “dirty” apprenticeship to be a true tattooer

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Recently, I came across this video put out by an “elite” tattoo training school (as shitty as that sounds) that calls out apprenticeship in tattooing as “dirty” business that doesn’t help anybody learn the art form, but just makes them familiar with janitor chores. This video says the reason tattoo schools are the future is because apprenticeships only teach you ass licking, whereas tattoo schools can turn you into an outstanding tattoo artist in 3 months. Let’s just say it out loud first: THAT LOGIC IS PURE BULLSHIT
 
When I was in journalism school 9 years back, we realised 3 months into our course that journalism cannot be taught in a classroom. We realised that developing the instinct for real news, learning the art of interviewing someone, forming constructive opinions doesn’t come by taking notes in a classroom, but by slogging it out on the ground, gathering real experiences in real incidents, and by being a part of a newsroom where everybody is hitting 14-16 hour shifts to keep news real and hard. I think it’s a great analogy for tattooing, because it’s not just an art form you can study your way into. It’s craftsmanship, and more importantly, a way of life that you need to acclimatise yourself to. It’s about learning how to do it all yourself, how to not just be able to draw and tattoo, but how to take care of people under your needle. Learning to tattoo on practice pads is cool and all, but your canvas in tattooing is not a reusable pad. They are humans. The only canvas that breathes, feels pain, expresses emotions and undergoes stimulated change. And you can give them an experience that goes beyond the tattoo only when you know much more than just drawing and running the tattoo machine.
 
Photo by Shatabdi Chakrabarti. All rights reserved.
 
Why there’s no shame in cleaning toilets
Hygiene is not just limited to your tattoo station, it’s the whole damn shop, so if you are an aspiring tattoo artist, you should be adept at maintaining hygiene standards across the shop. From your station to your kitchen to your bathrooms, you should be able to keep your shit clean. Tattoo history is rooted around the working class, around people who are hands on with what they do, and have people skills.
 
As legendary tattooer, Paul Booth says, “Now, there are rock stars in tattooing. But they will weed themselves out, because only the ones who are in it for the real thrill of this life everyday will survive, and grow.”
 
Few years back, I was interviewing another huge tattooer, Orge Kalodimas. Orge still calls himself an apprentice of Sake (of Sake Tattoo Crew), and has been so for over twenty years now. You think he’s a fool who has no self esteem? No, he just has no ego. He still opens the shop in the morning, sweeps and wipes the floors, autoclaves his steel grips, makes sure the kitchen utensils are shiny clean, before starting his station work for the day. Tattooing is not about just coming to the shop and doing your tattoos. It’s about you curating an atmosphere that’s welcoming and friendly for people who walk in through that door to trust you with their bodies. So, it’s a lot more than just tattooing, that you can learn only over extensive period of time, through real life experiences in that atmosphere.
 
Image courtesy: Iron Buzz Tattoos
 
How do you learn how to deal with all kinds of people
If you have to depend on your shop manager for every inch of communication you need to have with your clients and enquirers, you are probably doing a disservice to your job, and the person who has entrusted you to mark them for the rest of their lives. Tattooed people keep getting more tattoos, not just because they love the idea of permanent ink on skin, and their individual interpretations of the same, but also because of the interpersonal bonds we create with our artists. We are sometimes at our vulnerable most, sometimes at our excitable worst when we go in for a tattoo. As an artist, if you can’t put me in a better/peaceful/relaxed place at that time, and just treat me like a practice pad, I am sorry I am not coming back to you.
 
As a novice, how do you learn to deal with different types of clients? If reading articles on the internet (like this one), and attending seminars or classes is your way of addressing that, then you need help. Or, just stick to the idea of a “dirty apprenticeship”. Nothing teaches you as much as seeing your mentor do her/his thing (considering you don’t choose an asshole to learn from, at the first place). I have friends who have gotten sick tattoos from great artists in India, but never want to return back to them. I ask them why? They cite the lack of connection between the artist and them.
 
 
Apprenticeships are ‘dirty’, extensive and last for years, because there is no short route to success in tattooing. Apprenticeships are taxing on mind and body, because it’s not a 9-5 desk job. It’s a 24×7 way of life. When you are in the tattoo scene, there’s no professional and personal boundaries. They are all the same. And if you don’t love-hate every aspect of what you do, you lack the emotional quotient of being a tattooer, and you’re pretty bad if you don’t have that. You need to a rock solid artist, but not a cold-hearted stone.
 
You don’t need to necessarily buy this theory of apprenticeship if you’re not familiar with the same till now. You can choose to pay irrational amounts of money and get a certificate for showing your face at a walled box for 3 months, but then again, think about it. Do you want to be a tattoo artist people love to come back to, or just another microinfluencer on Instagram with 100k followers and no real friends that you made through this art form that connects people beyond lifetimes?
 
**Note: All views mentioned in the article are purely of the writer’s, and solely theirs**

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